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Unit 7: Set 6: Bringing Back the Game: Hunting and Game Conservation in North Dakota- Whitetail Deer

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Whitetail deer have long been a favorite game animal for hunters. They are difficult to hunt because they are smart and their coloring makes it easy for them to hide in grass or brush. They also provide tasty and nutritious meat for the hunter’s family.

Whitetail are native to North America and North Dakota. They have adapted well to the farm fields and suburban areas of the state, but are most comfortable in the riparian (riverbank) areas where the trees provide lots of shelter and food is abundant.

During the 1870s and 1880s hunters pursued whitetail deer for sport, for food, and for the market. By the 1890s, their numbers had seriously decreased and hunters spoke of long hunts in the river bottoms of the West River country to find the game. Some of these hunts were written up in the Bismarck Tribune. On November 12, 1900 two men returned from a hunt with 5 of the 8 deer they had killed. On November 23, 1901, the Tribune reported the return of a group that had hunted near Fort Buford. They had killed 14 deer; each man got at least one and one man shot 3 deer. In 1883, according to a report in the Tribune on October 19, 1903, the Marquis and Marquise de Mores hunted 7 days with a party near Medora and killed 34 deer, 2 antelope, and a mountain sheep.

By 1901, many North Dakotans were becoming concerned about over-hunting of deer. By then the bison were gone, and seasons on other big game animals were closed, but deer hunting was still open with a limit of 5, but some legislators were concerned that deer might be exterminated in North Dakota if hunters continued to kill deer in such numbers. Representative Simpson offered HB18 which proposed closing deer hunting until January 1905. The debate over the bill was fierce. When the bill reached the Senate, Senator LaMoure opposed it saying that its intent was to keep residents of the Red River Valley counties, the “real taxpayers” as he called them, from hunting in the western part of the state. Senator Wolbert suggested that the bill would not be enforced and that West River hunters would continue to hunt throughout the year in defiance of the law.

The bill did not pass, but game laws were tightened that year. It became illegal to hunt wild animals for market purposes (in accordance with the federal Lacey Act), duck hunting was limited to fall and winter months, and hunters could not use dogs to hunt deer.

The 1903 legislature again tried to close deer hunting for a time. Once again, the bill did not pass and the bag limit remained at 5 deer per hunter. Licenses cost 75 cents. Soon hunters were complaining about a shortage of deer, and the Tribune was complaining that game wardens were not enforcing game law violators. (December 22, 1903) The situation was becoming more serious, but still the legislature could not agree on a solution. In 1905, the limit on deer was reduced to 4 per hunter.

Finally, in 1913, the legislature closed hunting of both whitetail and mule deer until 1916. That date was moved back again and again until a deer season was opened in 1931. That year, hunters could take one antlered deer in a 10 day season. A resident license cost $5. Deer hunting was still prohibited in all or part of 19 counties, mostly on the western and northern edges of the state. Deer hunters had to wear red caps.

After 1931, the legislature allowed deer hunting every other year. The law limited hunters to shooting bucks, allowing does to reproduce and increase the population. It was not until after World War II (1946) that deer hunters could hunt every year.

Today, the deer population is strong. In 1950, the Game and Fish Department offered less than 20,000 deer licenses. In 2008, the Game and Fish Department offered 149,400 licenses for whitetail and mule deer, both antlered and anterless. Though the legislature, Game and Fish administrators, and hunters struggled to find a good solution to the problem of protecting game and satisfying the interests of hunters, ultimately they succeeded in restoring the population to adequate numbers.

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